Interview: Alfa talks to Edward Lucas about The New Cold War

Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas (b.1962), a journalist for The Economist, is regarded as one of the foremost experts on the politics and economics of Eastern Europe.

He has lived in cities across the region and has been writing about Eastern Europe for more than twenty years.

Lucas was the first foreigner to receive a Lithuanian visa after the country proclaimed its independence from the Soviet empire exactly eighteen years ago today, on March 11, 1990.

His first book, The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West, was launched at the beginning of February. A Lithuanian edition was released three weeks later.

Lucas is a self-proclaimed friend of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. His book is the first to examine Russia through the eyes of the Baltic states.


Virgis Valentinavicius: Is there room in the market for another book about Russia?

Edward Lucas: There are many books about Russia, and they're written by people who know Russia well but who know the other countries as places they fly over on their way to Russia. I'm one of very few journalists who has balanced my time between Russia and the countries round about it.

These countries between the Baltic and the Black Sea are the main theatre of what I've called the New Cold War. So I write a lot about Russia, but also about what Russia is doing in these countries, including Lithuania. I've got first-hand experience -- there aren't many journalists who read the Czech, Polish, and Lithuanian press regularly.

Most 'Russia' books come out in one or two languages. This book is coming out in ten international editions. I think that's a sign that there's a real market for a book that explains what's been going on over the last ten years.

It's not a book for Russia specialists. It's a book for the general reader -- there aren't many books aimed at the reader who doesn't follow Russia closely.

VV: Many of those who write about Russia see things from a Western viewpoint. What has been your approach?

EL: I think it's very important when writing about Russia to see things the way that Russians see them. The Putin years are only really explicable in terms of both the popular and the elite perception of the Yeltsin years, which are rather unfairly being portrayed as a disaster, I think. But it's also very important to see how things look from the point of view of Russia's neighbours, and this has been a big hole in Western coverage of Russia.

We've tended to say this is how we think things look, and occasionally we've tried to say how the Russians view things, but it's very rare to have a book that looks at things from the Baltic, Polish, Georgian, or Ukrainian point of view, and I've tried to do just that.

VV: Eastern European countries, from a Western perspective, are usually labelled as paranoid towards Russia to one degree or another. What's your perspective?

EL: I don't think they're paranoid enough. One of the main points I make in this book is that the battleground of this New Cold War is these countries, but they are quite badly governed, really.

You can travel from Estonia through to Georgia and you won't find one country which you could say has a really good government, of the kind that we saw perhaps in some countries in the 1990s when they were trying to make really important reforms.

These countries are complacent, badly governed, and in many cases quite heavily penetrated by Russian business, political, and other influence. That's one reason why the West -- which hasn't perhaps been paranoid enough -- doesn't take them seriously because they say: why should we care so much about these countries which are sort of second-class members of the European Union who haven't got the euro and are maybe outside the EU and aren't going to join it anytime soon?

Western complacency and Eastern complacency feed into each other, reinforcing each other. My book is meant to be a wake-up call for everybody. For Russians, saying this is a dead-end, this is not a new civilization, and the incompetent spooks who run your country are wasting a historic opportunity to modernise it. It's a wake up call for East Europeans, saying that if you don't watch out Russia's going to have you for breakfast. It's a wake-up call for West Europeans saying if you don't wake up you're going to lose the Eastern part of the continent which you gained in 1989. And it's a wake-up call for the Americans, saying trans-Atlantic solidarity is every bit as important now as it was during the Cold War.

VV: You're not at all soft on Putin, but why we shoulld blame Putin for Russia's woes when the liberal alternative in Russia is very weak and unable to win popular suport?

EL: You can certainly argue that Putin is a logical consequence of the 1990s. If you have a period of extreme instability people will want stability. One of the main points I make in the book is that just because things are logical outcomes in Russia, it doesn't mean they are desirable ones, and it doesn't mean we should close our eyes and pretend that they're not happening.

Every new Russian leader gets a honeymoon with the West. We were happy about Khrushchev. We were happy about Brezhnev, about Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin. Then there's a gradual process of disillusionment because we realise that, actually, Russia develops in its own way -- one that isn't very good for us. I don't think that the West should be trying to change Russia. We had a period of deep engagement in the 1990s which discredited Western values. It made Russians think that democracy was dermokratiya ('shit-ocracy') and privatisation, which became known as prichvatizatsiya ('grab-it-all-isation'). We did it with the best of intentions, but we probably didn't make things much better.

What we need to do now is to be very hard-headed. We have to say we can't change Russia very much. We can maybe influence it on the margins, but what we can do is defend our allies. We have to draw a line that says the countries which want a Euro-Atlantic orientation must not be stopped from getting it. We also have to say to the Russians: if you don't share our values that's fine, but then we can't treat you as family.

If you want to be family -- be in the Council of Europe and come to the G8 -- then you have to believe in political freedom, particularly free media, property rights, rule of law and, if you don't, we won't ram them down your throat but you cannot come to a family Christmas party if you don't share any of the values of the family.

So we should be treating Russia more like we treat China, which is with respect, with hard-headed negotiation, and certainly no artificial hostility, but without any illusion that what Russia wants is the same as what we want.

VV: The West has a long history of complacency towards Russia. There's a long and powerful tradition or pragmatism, and of wanting to do business with Russia. How can we change this?

EL: I think there are a few things that have changed. I agree that the West usually gets Russia wrong and we usually wake up around twenty years after Russia starts doing something bad. It takes us about twenty years to notice it.

The Tsarist imperialism in the nineteenth century was of great concern to people like Kipling, but it didn't really affect the British public opinion until the very end of the nineteenth century.

I would argue the Cold War started in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution. It was only in about 1947-48, after the Berlin air lift, that we realised what was going on. Similarly with the new shape of Kremlin power, with what I think is basically a KGB putsch which has taken over power in Russia.
Actually, never in Russian history did the secret police run the country, even under Ivan the Terrible.

Now we have the Chekisty in power, and this is very significant. I'm pleased that it's only taken perhaps ten years for people to begin to see what's happening. What's underlining that is partly the Kremlin's mistakes.

The Kremlin has been extremely clumsy and stupid in the way it has played what's quite a strong hand. For example, with Estonia and the Bronze Soldier, Estonia made some bad mistakes. The Kremlin could have just exploited them, instead of which it threw away its propaganda victory by attacking the Estonian embassy and the Swedish ambassador's car.

In Georgia, Saakashvili makes plenty of mistakes. It would have been quite possible to sit back and let him make himself unpopular at home, instead of which they start attacking with helicopters in the middle of the night, firing rockets, and engaging in stunts which end up making Saakashvili look like a good guy. They've overplayed their hand with Ukraine when they tried to fix the election result and then recognise it, which provoked the Orange Revolution.

There has been a series of bad mistakes which have made people concerned and if they continue that's good news. Then there's the energy wealth. Russia's great asset is the last bit of the Soviet planned economy which is the monopoly-hold on gas pipelines. This is a really important strategic factor.

They have overplayed that as well by going for these very blatant deals with Germany at the expense of other countries. I sometimes joke that it would be a suitable fate for Mr Schroeder if the Russians dropped him as head of Nord Stream because he was discrediting the whole project. But I can see exactly why they thought it was a good idea. Now, if you're going to argue against Nord Stream you just have to say: 'But look at Schroeder'. People immediately understand why this is bad.

I think a softly-softly approach which, I would argue, they've adopted more in Lithuania where they have very powerful businessmen who you might say have historic links to Russia, who have done very well consolidating economic links and, to some extent, political power in Lithuania.

That tactic has been much more successful than the blatant approach of using Paksas and Uspaskich. My big worry is that the Kremlin realises this and goes over to a softly-softly approach, and this may be why Medvedev has been made the new president, because he would exemplify that softly-softly approach and make the world safe for Russian investment. But, on the whole, so far they've always made mistakes and this is why I think Western complacency -- which you're right to highlight -- is a deplorable part of the Western approach to Russia.

VV: Lenin once said: 'The capitalists will sell us the rope that we will hang them with.' What has been the role of foreign investors in shaping the Russian public opinion of the West today?

EL: It is strong. During the Old Cold War we used to worry about Communists. Communist trade unions were the big Russian fifth column as was, to some extent, the peace movement and the campaign for nuclear disarmament.

That was quite a hard sell because even the most enthusiastic Communist couldn't portray the Soviet Union as being a paradise, and as soon as people found out about what things were like in the Soviet Union they liked it less, and when people in the Soviet Union found out things about the West they liked it more. So the ideological gradient was in our favour.

Now Russia has dropped the ideological baggage. The 'New Russia' ideology is much more complicated and, to some extent, quite a lot more appealing. It's now much easier for them to use capitalism against us. I think they have developed a kind of ruthless or what you might call corrupt command-capitalism, which is very effective in terms of getting our money and recycling it in safe investments abroad.

There's a big pro-Russia lobby, and I would say the City of London is now the fifth column. It used to be the trade unionists in boiler suits, but now it's bankers in pin-stripe suits who are the problem. There's one word of caution in all this: although the Russians think they're very rich -- and they are -- on a global scale they're still quite small potatoes The really big money is Chinese and Arab. If the City of London de-listed all Russian shares and said they wouldn't sell any more Russian bonds, it would be a small blip -- nothing as big as it would be if it were one of the big emerging markets.

VV: You're calling for a tougher, clearer stance in the West's dealings with Russia. What's the recipe for a country such as Lithuania? Do we follow Estonia's example and ignore Russia's existence, focusing on building relations with Brussels and Washington? Or, our own schizophrenic discussion? In Lithuania, there are calls on the right for a tougher stance, as well as calls to placate and be nicer to Russia.

EL: Lithuania's security depends on Western security generally. I think one of the lessons of the past fifteen or twenty years is that it's not a good idea to start fights you can't win, and I think this is a lesson Georgia has learned. Saakashvili's rhetoric towards Russia used to be extremely sharp, and he was then asked politely but firmly by his American friends and Western allies to shut up, because they said to him: you are in the position of a small guy who goes into a bar picks a fight with a big guy and then says to his friends 'I'm in a fight, come and help me.' That's true for Lithuania as well.

I think the best defence for any country that's threatened by Russia is good government at home. If the political system is robust and healthy then it's harder for Russia to influence it. If there is a healthy foreign investment climate then there's no danger of Russians coming in to buy things up on the cheap because Westerners will be coming in and paying top dollar. If the public service is full of patriotic bureaucrats who can't be bribed, then it would be very difficult for Russian intelligence agencies to subvert them.

The first bulwark of defense is good government. I'm actually more worried about Latvia at the moment than I am about Lithuania. Perhaps one thing Lithuania should do is look at Latvia to make sure it doesn't get itself into that sort of mess.

I wouldn't hold up Estonia as a model because I think they have been quite smug. Their particular problem is the Estonian Russians -- their integration has not gone as fast as it should have done in the past few years. The Bronze Soldier riot was a wake-up call to them. They're not getting the solid allegiance of a new generation of Baltic Russians. Fifteen years ago no one would have dreamed that Russian teenagers would be rioting in the streets of Tallinn shouting 'USSR forever!'

I think foreign policy is almost always an adjunct to domestic policy. If you have bad domestic policy, the best foreign policy won't save you. If you have really good domestic policy then foreign policy tends to fall into place.

VV: Why have you used the term New Cold War?

EL: There were three features of the Old Cold War: an ideological conflict, a military conflict, and a global arena. Anywhere in the world, you would find Communist parties financed by the Kremlin, and the Americans trying to counteract that, as well as the Soviet Navy popping up all over the world.

That clearly doesn't happen now. The Russian Navy is a pathetic relic of the Soviet Navy. It has barely twenty seaworthy big-surface ships. When they say they're sending a naval force to the Mediterranean, there will be no air cover, and I hope they take a tug with them in case one of their ships breaks down so they can bring it back again.

The Communist ideology is gone and if Russians believe in anything they believe in money, so there's no big ideological conflict. And it's not really global. We don't worry that much what the Russians think about Indonesia or South Africa.

We're not going to get the Old Cold War back again, but the New Cold War is new because it's different.

There is an ideological dimension -- let me say that I take sovereign democracy very seriously -- which is based on some quite reasonable criticisms of the West, and it's perfectly reasonable for the Russians to argue that the West is hypocritical, that there are serious shortcomings in the Western model of parliamentary democracy, that money pays a very big role, and that all too often elections are a sham. I compare that with Dostoevsky who had very good criticisms of the West, but that doesn't mean serfdom and the knout were better.

So my answer to the Russian criticisms is that you're not producing a better variant of democracy -- you're producing an even worse one. But this mixture of xenophobia, nationalism, self-righteousness, and nostalgia for the Stalinist past is quite potent. Quite a few Belorussians seem to like it. It plays quite well in Central Asia. In a place like Moldova, people say: why should we swallow the onerous multilateral obligations of the Euro-Atlantic package when sovereign democracy offers us a chance to run our own country and run our own affairs, and not to be too hung up on transparency and accountability. So I think the ideology is there and it is for export. It's still developing but it's there.

The military confrontation is not about brute force -- it's about arms sales. What Russia can do is sell advanced weapons into sensitive conflict zones. America never took Hugo Chavez seriously as a military threat until Russia started selling him fighter jets. Russia is selling advanced weapons to the Iranians and the Chinese. Russia is not going to team up with the Muslim world, because the Muslims hate Russia because of Chechnya. And they're not going to team up with China because they're too scared of China.

But they can throw these arms into sensitive zones and cause problems for the West.

The main battleground of the Old Cold War was Eastern Europe and the main battleground for the New Cold War is Eastern Europe. It's just that it's being fought with banks not tanks, and with pipelines not planes. But the struggle for power and influence is still there.

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